What Does Colorism and Anti-Blackness In Filipino Culture Look Like?

What Does Colorism and Anti-Blackness In Filipino Culture Look Like?

I was a sophomore in the University of the Philippines the first time I heard about the death of Trayvon Martin. It sounded to me like a tragic (but isolated) incident of cruelty and hate. His death was vaguely circulated on social media, and at the time, I wasn’t aware of its impact on the world and on me.

It seemed foreign.

In the years that followed, hearing news about Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice being killed in America for no real reason other than that they were Black opened my eyes. With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, it became apparent to me these were not isolated cases, these were manifestations of systemic bigotry and prejudice based on the colour of a person’s skin. 

At the time, I was in the debate varsity of my university. I’m grateful to have been in an academic setting, surrounded by peers who took interest in educating themselves and others on social issues. Outside of those settings, I honestly did not have nearly as much conversation about things of that nature.

I entered the workforce in the Philippines as a makeup artist and model. On the surface, it could be easy to say that racism, colourism, and empowerment are unrelated to my “glamorous” field of work. Having studied Broadcast Communication, I know that the media plays a big role in the creation of culture.

However, it was only after years of being on the job that I saw how widely and how deeply all of these things were intertwined.

The Privilege Of Learning About Racism 

In 2020, preceded by the tragic loss of countless Black lives, the murder of George Floyd was a tipping point.

It became impossible to ignore.

This time there was clear and explicit documentation; the video of Floyd’s death was shared and re-shared many times over. The proof of cruelty and abuse was undeniable. The racial injustice and violence was always too much, but the privilege we have as non-Black persons allowed us to be oblivious to it, until recently.

I’ve learned Black lives have been oppressed across centuries. This was not something we learned in school as children, nor was it something we talked about at home. Racism was not part of my awareness until much later in life and now I realize this was a result of my privilege.

In the age of many advancements in society, racism is something that begs to evolve with the rest of the world but hasn’t. It’s baffling how some people find hate impossible to outgrow and overcome.

When I started talking about it on my own platforms and in my conversations with family, I get asked why I care so much. “It’s not happening here,” they say. “We’re not Black, why should it be our problem?”

I was shocked that I had to explain why we should care.

It IS Our Problem, Too

I have a few relatives and family friends who decided to work abroad and experienced racism first-hand. They have had to overcome the stereotype that all FIlipinas are maids, au pairs, and caregivers. They are exceptionally brilliant, powerful professionals, but they had so much more of a hard time commanding the respect they deserved because they are small, brown FIlipinas.

In many places, Filipinos are paid significantly less than their white counterparts for the same kind and amount of work. 

We can empathize with the racism that Black individuals go through, but ultimately the experiences of oppression of Black bodies is different and extraordinary.

We must advocate for the Black community because it’s our moral responsibility. It is our problem, too, because it’s a matter of humanity.

I think we easily forget the role we FIlipinos play in enabling anti-Black racism in our country, thereby tolerating it when it happens outside of the country. Learning about anti-Black racism and BLM made me more sensitive to the little and big ways that  Filipinos contribute to racism in my immediate surroundings and in bigger spaces like in mainstream media, social media, and in the work that I do.

Colorism and Internalized Anti-Blackness in the Philippines

Racism manifests itself in many ways. Some ideas are so deeply ingrained in our culture and internalized in us as individuals, we don’t notice if we don’t really look. Anti-Black sentiments and microaggressions against those with darker skin have always been prevalent in the Philippines.

As a dark-skinned Filipina myself, I have first-hand experience of the preferential treatment fair-skinned Filipinas receive. Growing up, I was always compared to my lighter skinned cousins, who were fawned upon for their beauty. In modeling jobs, I am casted as a contrast to an often Mestiza celebrity or “whiter” models.

Having dark skin and curly hair, I get casted for contrast and “character”.

Mestiza/Mestizo is a term used for fair-skinned Filipinos with European-looking features. It’s rooted in Spanish colonial Philippines as a label given to those born of mixed Spanish and Filipino or Indigenous descent. It was a form of racial segregation used to decide class and social mobility.

While it has been hundreds of years since Spanish colonization, the concept of value being associated with skin colour lives on.

Skin colour is a story on its own in our pre-colonial history. Aetas, called “Negritos” (little Black men) by American Anthropologist Otley Beyer, are believed to be the first inhabitants of our islands.

Aetas are an Indigenous group of people with dark skin, kinky hair, and full lips.They were also portrayed as primitive, uncivilized, and less skilled. I remember being taught in school as if there was a biological evolution in the population in the country: first the Aetas, Indones (light-skinned, tall, slender bodies, thin high-bridged noses, noted for being “more civilized” than the Aetas), then the Malays (Brown people) who are the ancestors of most Filipinos today.

Aetas remain in the Philippines to this day, and they are still marginalized.

People use “Aeta” as an insult, as in “mukhang kang Aeta” (meaning, you look like an Aeta). I have been on the receiving end of these comments, even being called unggoy (monkey) and bakulaw (gorilla) when mean kids referred to my dark skin and wider nose.

Through speaking with other morenas (brown-skinned girls), I have learned that most of them have shared these experiences from childhood all the way into adulthood. Through movements like #MagandangMorenx, you can see that many Filipinos all over the world have had to overcome similar struggles.

I learned through other personal encounters, racism is manifested in the “humor” that some Filipinos have. I’ve heard some jokes go like, “Smile in the dark so that we’ll be able to see you”, or “If you walk in the dark with a white shirt it will look like it’s floating”. 

Where are you? I can’t see you. Editorial advocacy page @MorenoMorena.PH by photographer Juro Ongkiko surveyed their community’s experiences with insults  growing up with dark skin

The Bigger Picture

On a larger scale, dark-skinned characters in Philippine TV shows and other media are either villainized or made to be the object of pity. They are almost always portrayed to be less-than. Meanwhile, those with lighter skin tones are made to be the stars, the heroes, the well-off.

La Luna Blanca is a television show where a fair-skinned actress was in blackface. They are supposed to be twins that were born as a result of the rape of their mother by a dark-skinned “engkanto” or mystical entity.

It’s so strange how harmful media like this persists on a national scale and people don’t seem to be criticizing them enough to be taken off the air. This particular show ran for years.

Every now and then, there are cases of insensitivity and careless portrayals of Black and brown characters. This goes to show that cultural and racial sensitivity and proper representation are not primary concerns for those creating mass media.

In advertising, there are more and more Black and brown faces. “Inclusion” , “representation” , and “diversity” have become marketing buzzwords for many beauty and fashion brands.

Skinwhite, a brand that sells skin whitening products, put one of twin sisters in brownface for this ad. They did this on multiple sets of twins for ads in print, TV, and digital—basically everywhere.

Tasteless execution like the ad above from Skinwhite (I cringe at the brand name) is an example. Once you pay closer attention, you start to notice how tokenistic “representation” runs deeper and more insidiously. 

During the thick of the BLM movement earlier this year, I got into a conversation with one of my biracial Filipino-African friends who is a model. She expressed her frustration with brands claiming to be all about diversity and equality, yet failing to stand with the Black community during this difficult time.

They use her image for profit and not a peep is heard from them at a time that calls for true advocacy on justice, equality and empowerment.

As Black and brown models, we were already having a hard time booking jobs and getting paid fairly, as it is. My friend felt the need to narrow down her list of potential clients even further, refusing to work with brands who don’t truly value her Blackness.

Pagod na pagod na akong gamitin ng brands dahil sa kulay ko,” she expressed. “Para lang masabi nila na ‘diverse’ sila.” (“I am so exhausted from being used by brands for my skin colour, just so they’re able to pretend they stand for diversity.”)

The (Non)Reception and (In)Action on BLM in the Philippines

True anti-racism advocacy has been difficult to find among local voices. With foreign influencers and brands criticized for staying silent, Filipino influencers and brands have tried to evade the same criticism by doing the bare minimum: a black square and hashtag on their Instagram Grid, and calling it a day.

Is that better than not having said anything at all? How can we be true allies to the Black community?

The death of George Floyd and the protests that followed happened while most of the Philippines was still under lockdown. We witnessed it unfold over the internet, on social media, one of the only ways to connect to the outside world at this time. With people in quarantine, like me, spending more time consuming media, it’s been an opportunity to hyper-focus on current issues.

For the last few years, headlines in the Philippines have been filled with news of deaths on the streets during the “Drug War”, political killings, and even the murders of journalists. In the beginning, everyone was shocked with the violence: how terribly inhumane it was, and how much of it there was in our country.

Eventually, the deaths became just statistics, with the general sentiment being a shrug and a sigh. “Oh, another one.”

Most Filipinos in the Philippines have become desensitized to violence. In my own family, the television is turned off the second the anchor reads out another one of those headlines. We are discouraged from bringing it up in conversation because it just makes everyone feel sad and powerless.

However, things were different when the news of the murder of George Floyd broke out. People I followed were resharing the footage all over their social media captioned with sentiments of shock, disbelief, anger, and heartbreak.

It had been a while since I had seen people react that way to the news of violent death. It was on my feed incessantly for more than a few days, which is more than I can say for local headlines. It seems news of violence becomes shocking when it happens elsewhere.

For many, involvement in Black Lives Matter stopped after the initial wave of news reports on George Floyd. Online was where their engagement began and ended. Other pressing issues trickled into our Newsfeed until BLM was virtually forgotten in the Philippines.

We need wide and ongoing conversations about anti-racism and Black Lives Matter, but the current problem is accessibility.In-depth opinion pieces about BLM are kept exclusively among academics and political analysts on news sites.

I have the privilege of having higher education, yet for the general population, there is little accessible and digestible information.Twitter threads contribute to educating on social media, but even their reach is limited to mostly millennials. Discussions were sparse on more popular platforms like Facebook which comprises of a more diverse audience

With the “echo chamber” quality most social media algorithms have, news and opinions get distributed to people with the same interests and opinions and rarely get delivered outside of the bubble.

In my bubble, the focus of conversations was the Anti-Terror Bill. Specifically, fighting against it. In mainstream Philippine media, this newly passed law and the short-comings of our government with regards to handling COVID-19 became the more urgent focus.

On June 12th, a rally was held for Philippine Independence Day despite the restrictions on social gatherings. People protested the issues in our country with regards to the  supposed impunity of those in power, insufficient medical response, the threat to our liberty posed by the Anti-Terror Bill (#JunkTerrorBill), and the shut-down of one of the biggest mainstream media outlets in the Philippines, ABS-CBN (#DefendPressFreedom).

With all of this going on in the local sphere, speaking about Black Lives Matter in the Philippines came with the prerequisite of understanding what our country is going through and speaking out about that first. If not, one ran the risk of being called ignorant, “nakiki-uso” (just going with the trend), or plain apathetic towards the struggles of our country and the suffering of our people.

It is hypocrisy to care about human rights violations overseas, and not care when it happens at home. All human life is of equal value and this is a fact that remains to be learned and relearned for many.

On June 4th, it was local protesters who were able to bridge concerns for human rights in our country and in America when they took to the streets, taking a knee in solidarity for Black Lives.

Where Do We Go From Here?

If the past few months have been an indication, I am hopeful for more conversations regarding racism and colourism in the Philippines. Bringing the Black Lives Matter movement to mainstream conversation gives us an opportunity to teach fellow Filipinos how to recognize white supremacy and oppression in our own context.

Admittedly, we have a long way to go when it comes to understanding nuances of speech and imagery, nurturing a more media-literate audience, and creating a culture more accepting of differences.

Just as I was writing this post, one of my friends Rizza Lana, owner of natural skin care brands @Mink.PH and @Lana.PH posted an interaction on one of her brands’ social media pages.

Challenging colourism. The first comment says “Why is your model dark-skinned?” The reply goes, “Is there a problem with having a brown-skinned model for a skin care brand?” Instagram Story, courtesy of Rizza Lana who says “You are Filipina, beautiful whatever your skin tone and weight.”

This interaction shows the existence of negative opinions about the place of dark-skinned bodies on beauty ads. But it also shows that there are people who stand up to challenge this and fight for the right of brown and Black bodies to be visible in mainstream media.

These are the baby steps towards creating a society that not just merely tolerates differences, but embraces them 一 a society accustomed to doing what’s right. One which fights against all forms of oppression. A society that values human rights and human lives.

I am hopeful that advocating for justice and continued education about current issues all over the world will create a more critical and compassionate community. I am hopeful that as we do the work it takes to call out anti-Blackness in our families and unlearn harmful internalized beliefs about race, color, class, and gender (because our activism needs to be intersectional) others will follow.

One day we will raise a generation that doesn’t need to be convinced that Black Lives Matter一because they just do.

How has BLM resonated in your own communities? How have your experiences as brown individuals affected your calls for justice?

Erianne Salazar

Erianne Salazar

Erianne Salazar is a Manila-based makeup artist and model, with her focus on makeup for film and television and commercial modeling. She earned her Broadcast Communication degree from the University of the Philippines-Diliman, and has been advocating for media literacy with regards to beauty and body messaging in the Philippines. She is the creator of Pretty Positive, a blog that promotes the optimization of the Self with self care for the body and spirit.

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